Creativity is exciting, but it’s also scary.
Whenever you set out to do something new, you never know how it’s going to turn out – you can’t predict it, plan it, or control it. Creativity is inherently uncertain.
We all know this, but most of the time we don’t talk about uncertainty. We try to avoid it, ignore it, or fool ourselves we can eliminate it.
And Jonathan speaks with the voice of experience – he once quit a six-figure salary as a lawyer to earn $12 an hour as a personal trainer, before launching a yoga studio in the heart of New York, the first of a series of entrepreneurial ventures.
Uncertainty is partly based on Jonathan’s own experience of confronting the unknown as an entrepreneur, writer, speaker and consultant, and also enriched by stories and interviews with creators in many different fields. (Some bloke called Mark McGuinness even pops up at one point.)
The book provides both a fresh angle on the creative process as well as sound practical advice on handling fear and uncertainty along the way.
As Jonathan is a long-time friend of Lateral Action and these are critical skills for anyone trying to create remarkable things, I asked him to share some insights from the book with us, and he kindly agreed.
What made you focus on uncertainty in this book, and why is it important for creators to face up to it?
Uncertainty, what it does to creators and why it needs to be present, wasn’t actually the focus when I started writing. It was one category of questions in the interviews I was doing about creativity, innovation and world class performance. But every time an interview circled around to the topic of uncertainty, the conversation would light up.
People were fascinated by it. We all experience it as creators, in fact it must be there. Uncertainty is a signpost that what you’re doing matters, that what you strive to create will not be derivative.
But your ability to not let it paralyze you is something nobody talks about. So when I started shining the light on the conversation around uncertainty and the creative process, everyone from bestselling authors to the Chief Innovation Officer at one of the largest ad-firms in the world wanted to not only talk about it, they also wanted to know what I was learning from everyone else.
This exploration also builds heavily around my own deep interest and years of research into the science and psychology behind taking action in the face of uncertainty. At a certain point, I had to allow the book to go where it needed to go and write the book I couldn’t not write.
Artists, inventors and entrepreneurs have always had to deal with uncertainty. Do you think it’s something more and more of us are having to come to terms with? If so, why?
Great work requires decisions and actions in the face of uncertainty. In fact, studies prove a strong and direct relationship between your ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty and creativity. And that makes sense. The longer you can live in the question, the more likely you’ll be to come up with truly extraordinary ideas, solutions and creations.
Coming to terms with uncertainty, though, is not a new phenomenon. It’s always been a part of the experience of anyone who braves the quest to create something from nothing. What is new is the realization that rather than running from this experience or assuming you’ll just have to suffer for your art, there exist a set of powerful strategies and practices to make living in the question a much more enjoyable experience.
It’s easy to look at a phenomenally creative and adventurous person and assume they are naturally comfortable with risk and uncertainty. But are they? Is handling uncertainty an inborn ability or can it be learned?
A very thin slice of people may well drop into the world a with an orientation or seeming natural ability to handle action in the face of uncertainty better than others. Whether that’s genetic or trained, nobody really knows.
But, that vast majority of high-level creators build what I call “uncertainty scaffolding,” or strategies and practices that allow them enough baseline calm to do the things that would shut most others down. The greatest creators train not only in their chosen fields, but in the alchemy of fear.
In the book you talk about ‘leaning into great waves of fear and uncertainty’, to avoid being overwhelmed and to harness their energy for creativity. How can we do this in practice?
Spend as much time training in the mindset that allows you to embrace uncertainty as you do training in your actual chosen creative medium. Focus on four areas: changes in workflow, daily personal practices, shifts in your creative environment and outlook prompts. I explain a lot more about these different areas in the first few chapters of Uncertainty, which you can download free here.
Supposing someone is reading this, who has a dream they want to achieve, but who is holding back due to fear of uncertainty. What can they start doing today that will help them develop a different relationship with uncertainty and empower themselves to pursue the dream?
There are many different strategies and practices, but one very simple one is to work in shortened high-attention bursts of no more than 90 minutes, with breaks of at least 15-20 minutes. This simple shift not only helps refuel the part of your brain that keeps your fear and anxiety in check, it also honors the organic limits of your attention, stops the frustration of trying to push beyond it and allows the space needed to allow data to subconsciously coagulate into big ideas.
Jonathan Fields is a dad, husband, lawyer-turned-serial-entrepreneur, acclaimed blogger, business consultant, speaker, and author. He writes about entrepreneurship, innovation, lifestyles, and marketing at JonathanFields.com and TribalAuthor.com. His new book, Uncertainty, is now available online and in bookshops.